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US House readies final vote on Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package

FILE PHOTO: Sunlight shines through the U.S. Capitol rotunda as the House of Representatives prepares to debate the Senate's version of U.S. President Joe Biden's COVID-19 relief plan in Washington, U.S., March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Erin Scott

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The U.S. House of Representatives will take up the Biden administration's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Wednesday, officials said on Tuesday, with the chamber's expected approval enabling the Democratic president to sign the legislation into law later this week.

Passage of the massive package, one of the biggest U.S. anti-poverty measures since the 1960s, would give Biden and the Democrats who control Congress a major legislative victory less than two months into his presidency.

The House will consider the legislation starting at 9 a.m. EST on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters. The bill was sent over to the House on Tuesday morning from the Senate.

By Tuesday afternoon, the House was already in a preliminary debate on the measure.

"Today we are on the doorstep of history. We are about to send the most sweeping and progressive economic investment in modern times to the president of the United States," Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat and chairman of the House Rules Committee, said on the House floor.

"This bill attacks inequality and poverty in ways we haven't seen in a generation," McGovern said, noting that it included an expansion of the Affordable Care Act health care program, popularly known as Obamacare, as well as measures to cut child poverty in half.

But Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican, said the aid was not well-targeted, providing $1,400 checks to anyone making $75,000 a year or less, "including those who may not have lost their jobs or experienced reduced employment" because of the coronavirus. He said the bill provided $125 billion to schools "even if they remain closed."

During the debate, multiple Republican members repeatedly asked unanimous consent to call up another measure, the Reopen Schools Act, but were ruled out of order.

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The Senate, where Democrats have effective control, passed its version of the bill on Saturday after a marathon overnight session. The upper chamber of Congress eliminated or pared back some provisions in an original House bill, including an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The changes the Senate made must be approved by the House before it can make its way to Biden's desk.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the House Democratic leadership, told reporters, "We'll pass it, hopefully with some Republican votes."

But Republicans, who broadly supported economic relief early in the coronavirus pandemic, have criticized the price tag of the relief package.

No Republicans supported the plan the first time it went through the House, and none voted for it in the Senate, either. House Republican Conference Chairman Liz Cheney told reporters Tuesday the bill would result in tax increases.

"We are going to be saddled with a spending burden and a tax burden that is really indefensible from the perspective of what it actually accomplishes," she said.

Democrats hold a very narrow majority in the House, meaning that without any Republican support, they can afford to lose only a handful of votes by their own members against the bill.

Two moderate Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the bill when it first passed the House. One of them, Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, said on Monday he would now vote for the bill with the Senate changes.

Some liberal House Democrats have criticized the Senate's amendments. But Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters she thought members of her group would back the legislation.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki has praised the legislation, saying that while there were some changes, it represented the "core" of what Biden originally proposed.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Lisa Lambert, Makini Brice and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)

© Copyright Thomson Reuters 2021

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